Minority Rights in the Middle East

This is a guest post by Lyn

Once there was a Coptic Church in Egypt where the toilets were out of order. But under an old Ottoman law, repairs to churches cannot be carried out without the permission of the Egyptian President. When the exasperated priest was told that he needed the President to get the job done, he cried:” I don’t need the President, I need a plumber! “

This story is symptomatic of the plight of Egypt’s 12 million Coptic Christians. Not only are they not allowed to repair or build churches without official permission – seldom given – but they are politically under-represented and banned from public service jobs. From time to time they are harrassed, there are kidnappings and forcible conversions to Islam.

The beleaguered minorities of the Middle East are in a sorry state. Kurds in Syria are deprived of citizenship and not allowed to speak their language. Zoroastrians, once dominant, now down to 25,000, suffer subtle discrimination in the Islamic republic of Iran, and Christians persecuted by Islamists in Iraq are leaving in their hundreds of thousands. As for the Jews, it is too late to save their ancient pre-Islamic communities. From a million in 1948 numbers have dwindled to a mere 4,500, due to state discrimination and the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For Masri Feki, a young Egyptian political scientist and author who lectured on minority rights at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS (http://www.harif.org/feki.html) last week, the plight of minorities is symptomatic of a Middle East with a deep identity crisis. The 15 states of the region have experimented with pan-Arabism  (based on language), and now pan-Islamism (based on religion). Both ideologies are bankrupt. It is time, Feki argues, to build a new Middle East which explodes the myth of the Arab nation and includes Turkey, Iran, the Kurds ( having achieved by now their collective right to self-determination) and Israel. Currently almost all the Arab states of the region have constitutions where the principal source of legislation is Islamic (Shar’ia) law. These constitutions have discrimination against religious groups built into them.They often deny citizenship  to certain ethnic groups. The new Middle East should guarantee equal rights and freedoms for all.

All this talk of minority rights troubles Brian Whitaker writing on Comment is Free (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/19/humanrights.middleeast). What is the point of focusing on minority rights in Arab and Muslim countries, he argues, when the majority are oppressed? Democracies should be concerned with the good treatment of minorities. In dictatorships, where minorities are persecuted, people should forget about minority rights.

In my view, Whitaker has it precisely backwards.  Minority rights are the thin end of the wedge. Treatment of minorities is the litmus test of the health of a society. State abuse of its minorities can soon degenerate into the abuse of everybody’s rights. This is precisely what happened as soon as Arab states acquired their independence. Jews, Christians and other minorities were the first victims of hatred and intolerance. All the others had their turn soon enough, heretics and secularists, and finally, those who did not fit exactly into the nationalist or Islamist ideological mould.

Minority rights are not a luxury that only democracies can afford. After the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, culture and religion are the next most important human rights. In the Arab Middle East and Iran where so many basic rights and freedoms are lacking, the struggle has to begin somewhere. Why not with minority rights?